Sad demise of Sheffield's Corn Exchange building we all took for granted

We’re all sometimes guilty of it. Rushing around, head down, up against time, with somewhere to be, not noticing what’s around us.

By Charles Smith
Monday, 24th January 2022, 7:01 am
Updated Monday, 24th January 2022, 5:06 pm
General view of the Old Corn Exchange, Sheffield, showing the new Park Hill redevelopment flats in the backgrounde and part of the wholesale fruit market, 1959
Severely damaged by fire in 1947 and demolished in 1962
General view of the Old Corn Exchange, Sheffield, showing the new Park Hill redevelopment flats in the backgrounde and part of the wholesale fruit market, 1959 Severely damaged by fire in 1947 and demolished in 1962

But maybe it’s not a modern phenomenon, according to a report in The Star in 1940 in the midst of World War Two.

Back then there was a great building that hardly anybody noticed, mullioned windows that scarcely anyone sees, a great groined roof and a whole history that nobody troubles to look at.

Thousands of people who passed it daily never seemed to notice it was one of the finest and most remarkable buildings in the area.

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Corn Exchange, Sheffield, Register Office entrance, April 21, 1944 Severely damaged by fire in 1947 and demolished in 1962

The Corn Exchange, on Sheaf Street, was built by the Duke of Norfolk in the 1880s on a site originally occupied by Shrewsbury Hospital. No expense was spared in giving Sheffield a building to be proud of.

It replaced the old corn exchange which could no longer cope with trade – in 1860 Sheffield had a thriving corn business. Sheaf Street was lined with countrymen selling straw, harnesses, rope and other rural necessities and was a haven for weary horses which had puffed and panted their way from the outlying farms.

Decades later, in 1940, every Tuesday corn merchants still laid out their samples there and the bustling market was in full swing.

Part of the building was the city’s Register Office for births, marriages and deaths.

Demolition of the Corn Exchange, Sheffield, April 19, 1963 Severely damaged by fire in 1947 and demolished in 1962

By December 1944 there were hopes the building could be given the prominence it deserved under plans unveiled by the city council.

A proposed new roundabout was mooted to take traffic away from the busy junction in front of the railway station, then one of the most congested parts of the city.

But before post-war redevelopment plans came to fruition disaster struck when a huge blaze ripped through the building in February 1947.

It was described as the city’s biggest fire for years, apart from the blitz.

During a dramatic evening, firefighters rescued two of the caretakers and another couple before the flames reached them.

Two other couples and their two children from the end of the building were urgently woken by police and got down the stairs to safety.

Fire hydrants were frozen and fire crews had to use water from the nearby canal.

Flames poured from the Register Officer doorway and sparks showered into the air as firefighters battled to keep the fire away from the wooden Sheaf Market.

Searchlights were used to penetrate huge clouds of billowing smoke and enable firefighters to direct their hoses to the centre of the blaze.

The Corn Exchange was gutted, its roof destroyed leaving half of the great hall open to the sky.

It lay empty until 1954 when part of the building was occupied by a banana ripening centre and fruit and vegetable store. A building was installed within its burnt out shell to house the venture.

But it did not herald a new dawn – and by 1961 the last post was sounding for the ruins of the old Corn Exchange as plans were revealed to demolish the remains as part of the redevelopment of congested Sheaf Street.

In June 1962, tenders were accepted for demolition and the remaining tenants – two banks and a pub – occupying a remnant of the building had to go.

The site would become part of a new road system.

In the meanwhile, in October 1963, it was announced a temporary car park with space for 120 vehicles would be opened.

An inauspicious end for the old Corn Exchange, once heralded as one of the city’s most handsome buildings.